IVALO, Finland — I’m at the Test World proving grounds to have a chat with Matt Becker, chief of vehicle attribute engineering at Aston Martin—and drive a near-production spec prototype of the 2018 Aston Martin Vantage.
The frozen tundra of northern Finland is not the first location you’d pick for the first drive of a 503-hp, rear-wheel-drive sports car. Nearly every vehicle circulating the local roads in the far north of Finland carries aggressive, studded winter tires. My test car isn’t so lucky. The stock, 20-inch wheels are fitted with steam roller-wide, high-performance winter tires with no metal studs imbedded into the tread. This will be interesting.
As I prod the start button, the Mercedes-AMG-sourced, twin-turbo V-8 echoes through the wiry spruce trees of Lapland. The maturity of the exhaust note is immediately apparent. “We didn’t want it to sound like an AMG,” said Becker. “We don’t want a popping and banging engine—that’s not as extreme as we want to go. It must sound like an Aston.”
The ZF 8-speed automatic hitched to the 4.0-liter engine is shared with Aston’s GT car, the DB11, but the transmission is tuned for sharper response, swapping ratios impressively with the steering wheel-mounted paddles as I begin dancing the Vantage on the snowy roads. Unfortunately, the controls used for selecting park, reverse, neutral, and drive are grouped around a rather-busy array of smaller buttons. Yes, I’m relieved Aston didn’t bury the ESP switch in the instrument cluster like on the DB11, but the new layout is playing in a world approaching the button-overloaded, first-generation Porsche Panamera.
Speaking of ESP, Aston added a special trick to the drivetrain on the Vantage, helping the stability control come into play less often—an electronic differential (eDiff). “The calibration of the eDiff took a massive amount of attention because it’s such a powerful device,” said Becker. “With a mechanical differential, you’re fixed on bias. You’re able to shift the character of the car with an eDiff. Once you sort that, you can go onto normal ESP development tuning. It was a big challenge to make the eDiff feel integrated and right.”
I’m in the right place to feel that new differential work its supposed magic. There’s no tarmac to be seen, as snow covers every square inch of the track. My brain flashes back to those ultra-wide, Aston-spec Pirelli Sottozero Serie II winter tires. Becker’s details about the development of the Italian winter rubber adds zero comfort.
“When we tune our winter tires, we don’t concentrate on snow performance too much,” Becker said. “We tune the tire to feel as normal as possible in normal (dry and wet) road conditions. Snow and ice performance is obviously evaluated but we will compromise that performance to give us better normal driving behavior.” And the V-8 puts out 505 lb-ft of torque starting at just 2,000 rpm. Great. Luckily that new eDiff is there to play security blanket.
You must mind how liberally you prod the throttle but turn off ESP and the Vantage is still intuitively controllable in the treacherous winter conditions, even on the less-than-optimal, steam roller-wide tires. And the new Aston is remarkably playful for a car that weighs some 3500 pounds. Oversteer is progressive and you feel the eDiff juggling torque between the rear wheels, especially during initial throttle application when exiting a corner and while countersteering the many slides on the slippery surface. A conventional limited-slip tends to lock-up aggressively, causing snap oversteer. The eDiff uses an array of sensors to control how much lock is applied, helping stability.
But even those with extensive snow experience can overcook it. I nearly finished my drive when the mistake happened. Luckily, a friendly local in a large Volvo tractor comes to my rescue. I’ll simply blame those less-than-optimal tires and the power of that Mercedes-AMG engine—of course, it wasn’t me! After being pulled out of the snowbank, I put my tail between my legs and switch ESP back on for the short drive back to garage. I feel the eDiff controlling wheelspin before the stability control would lend its helping hand, improving both momentum and stability.
Even if you’re not a wanna-be WRC driver, the eDiff assists. “The more you increase lock and torque on the eDiff, the more it increases the (virtual) length of the car,” noted Becker. “So, you can tune the base chassis to be very agile and aggressive and use the eDiff to make the car feel longer or shorter. We ramp the torque up on the eDiff at higher speeds to make the car feel longer and more stable—less responsive.”
Our drive in the new Vantage is all too brief. Steering feel is tough to judge on snow but the early-tune on this prototype is linear and accurate. The strong brakes have excellent feel, with impressive ABS calibration. My thoughts on ultimate pace and dynamics will have to wait but ride quality seems better than the outgoing Vantage, at least based upon the feel on the snowy surface.
I’m eager to get into a final production Vantage on real roads—and a race track—but there’s no doubt the new car is a step forward in both performance and depth of engineering. My early experience tells me that Aston is moving in the right direction with their new sports car, separating it nicely from the GT-nature of the DB11 but still injecting a level of welcomed refinement into the two-seater.
2018 Aston Martin Vantage Specifications
|ENGINE||4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/503 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 505 lb-ft
@ 2,000-5,000 rpm
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||13/21 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||175.8 x 76.5 x 50.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.6 sec|
|TOP SPEED||195 mph|